The first thing that strikes the reader about Sheila Kumar’s Kith and Kin: Chronicles of a Clanis the multitude of characters in the 237 pages of the novel. The author actually has a page devoted to a rather intimidating list of the 35 habiting her story, and briefly sketches their relationships to each other. And this, across generations and geographies.
The list is a well-intentioned guide since the book is a loose weave of stories around the Melekat family, a Malabar landed gentry. Their residence is named rather unusually, Mon Repos, and is typical of the landlord folk of Malabar, complete with sprawling grounds, cowsheds and ponds and mango trees. It’s occupied by its matriarch Ammini Amma and her descendants.
Not all of the tribe is resident. As the story unfolds, they narrate from their current locations. The reader just needs to sit back and figure out the role of the protagonists as they come on stage and tell their part of the tale. The picture is large, to say the least, and the mosaic is not easily definable. The characters point to a couple of skeletons in the closet as well. The women of this matrilineal clan are infamously given to tantrums and the men are insipid by comparison. The reader also gets to know that the Melekats are also good looking; and they are by nature, well, clannish.
The story opens and closes with Sumant and Suvarna; their camaraderie tips us to the dramatic bend of the author’s pen. But the rest of the story is about lives and routines, and patterns of living, which ranges from traditional to hip and from the rustic to high urban. The writing style is easy and flows well and most of the cast are etched credibly: especially Padmini, the unfortunate one; the spinster lives of Sarasa and Rohini, and the senior Menon men who are neurotically tormented and have geriatric issues.
The author is also eminently capable of creating the mood of the moment and sucking the reader right in, as she does with Sudha’s angst. But when one considers the fabric of the story as a whole, it’s a patched tapestry. The story is a labyrinth of relationships, not easily deciphered. The concluding chapters attempt to showcase the family’s bloodlines in a single scene, but are not very convincing. The same goes for the journal by a ghost, one of the characters.
There are a few issues that could have been easily avoided with the editorial pencil. The first is the intentional, non-italicised use of Malayalam words, albeit the presence of foot notes. It does not gel and jolts the non-Malayali reader into an unchartered territory of unfamiliar words.
The second, more serious, is the wrong pronunciation of some Malayalam words. Those familiar with the language will definitely find the use of ‘valichapadu’, ‘allapalathi’ and ‘barani’ annoying. ‘Valicha’ means something gone sour and its use instead of Velichappadu (for the Oracle of the Goddess) matters a lot. Similarly a no-good guy is termed an ‘alavalaathi’, and not ‘allapalathi’. The Malayalam alphabet prides itself on its variations of the sound ‘pa’, and it’s ‘bharani’ not ‘barani’. Again words like ‘pink podi’ and ‘mutai pink’ used respectively for generic cloth bleach and a garish pink do not add to the flavour of the text. Again in the first paragraph on the first page, a character contemplates answering a call on his ‘sleek and wafer-thin’ instrument. Later when he does answer the call, “he picked up the receiver”.
Yet, it’s not a book one would put down because of its faults. The author has a story to deliver, and does it with as much aplomb as she can.